The SEC West doesn’t appear to be relinquishing its Toughest Division in College Football title any time soon, which makes it especially difficult to predict those seven teams’ order of finish before the season. But trying is half the fun, so here goes.
Over these final few, seemingly never-ending weeks before another season kicks off, we’ll rank the West Division teams on offense, defense, coaching and X-factors, then tally them up for an overall projection of the standings.
Let’s get started with the SEC West offenses, which boast more than one Heisman hopeful:
1. LSU TIGERS
Strength: Running game
Weakness: Inconsistency at QB
Best Player: RB Leonard Fournette
Yes, the Tigers need more from quarterback Brandon Harris, but at a time when QB is a major question mark across the league, he’s one of the SEC’s most proven players at the position. Don’t overlook the significance of just six interceptions last season – or the ridiculous talent around him.
Fournette nearly eclipsed 2,000 yards in just 12 games last season and led the league in plays of 10, 20, 30 and 40-plus yards, according to cfbstats.com. He’s the preseason Heisman favorite, a ridiculous combination of power and speed, and he’s running behind yet another terrific O-line.
The Tigers have some pieces to replace up front, but Ethan Pocic is arguably the best center in the country, guard Will Clapp is rock-solid inside and Maea Teuhema is a budding star at tackle. And just when LSU has convinced you to sell out to stop the run, receivers Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural are home-run threats waiting to burn you. They have combined for 25 catches of 30-plus yards the last two seasons.
So yes, the Tigers need just a little more from Harris to be unstoppable.
2. ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE
Weakness: Yet another new QB
Best player: WR Calvin Ridley
The Tide lost 3,000-yard passer Jake Coker, 2,000-yard rusher (and Heisman winner) Derrick Henry and Rimington Award-winning center Ryan Kelly. The guts of their national championship offense are gone. And still, Alabama should have a formidable attack in 2016. How?
Being a juggernaut in recruiting sure helps. Nick Saban seems to keep swapping one star running back for the next, and into Henry’s sizeable shoes step former 5-stars Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough. No reason to expect anything less than another potent ground game in Tuscaloosa.
The line will certainly miss Kelly in the middle, but it has perhaps the nation’s best left tackle in Cam Robinson. There’s also a three-headed threat in the passing game: star receivers Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart and tight end O.J. Howard, hero of the national title game.
Ridley, a 1,000-yard receiver, is the SEC’s top big-play threat. He had a league-best six receptions of 50-plus yards as a freshman in 2015. The fact that we still don’t know who’ll be throwing him the ball would be a bigger concern if the Tide hadn’t successfully plugged in first-time starters under center in each of the last two seasons.
3. OLE MISS REBELS
Strength: SEC’s best QB
Weakness: Offensive line uncertainty
Best player: QB Chad Kelly
Like Alabama, the Rebels must replace some huge pieces from an offense that led them to a Sugar Bowl victory last season. Like the Tide, Ole Miss seems equipped to overcome those losses. NFL first-rounders Laremy Tunsil and Laquon Treadwell leave significant holes in the offensive line and receiving corps, but the trigger man is still in Oxford.
Kelly, who came to Ole Miss by way of Clemson and then junior college, punctuated his personal comeback with 4,542 total yards last season. Whether the SEC’s best quarterback can replicate that success depends in part on a retooled line – none of the five bowl game starters are back – but also on a still-talented group of skill players.
Receiver Quincy Adeboyejo is serious a deep threat (four catches of 50-plus yards in 2015), Damore’ea Stringfellow a huge target (6-2, 220) and Evan Engram an All-SEC tight end (1,394 career yards). While there’s no proven weapon in the running game, coach Hugh Freeze has done OK with the whole pass-happy thing in the past.
The Rebels led the SEC West in passing and total yards, scoring and plays of 20-plus yards last season. They might take a step back this fall, but only a small one.
4. TEXAS A&M
Strength: Loaded at receiver
Weakness: Third starting QB in three years
Best Player: WR Christian Kirk
Remember when Kevin Sumlin’s name and electric offense were synonymous? Sumlin and the Aggies’ attack have gone the way of Johnny Manziel’s life and career in the two years since the Heisman-winning QB left College Station: steady descent.
But after running off three blue-chip quarterbacks – Kenny Hill, Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray – and an offensive coordinator, maybe there’s hope again at A&M. Sumlin snagged former UCLA coordinator Noel Mazzone and former Sugar Bowl MVP Trevor Knight, a QB transfer from Oklahoma, in the offseason.
That pair inherits some serious weaponry in the passing game. Kirk and Josh Reynolds each had 900-plus receiving yards last season, and Ricky Seals-Jones, a monster at 6-5, 240 pounds, has more than 1,000 for his career.
The offensive line is a concern – just 21 combined starts and a third position coach in five years – and there’s no sure thing in the backfield. The Aggies hope another former Sooner, Keith Ford, will address the need at tailback. But Knight, who rushed for 853 yards in his Oklahoma career, can also boost the ground game.
He’s no Johnny Football, but even a decent approximation would do after these last two seasons.
5. AUBURN TIGERS
Strength: Power running game
Weakness: Unproven passing game
Best Player: RB Jovon Robinson
Last season’s offense was easily the most disappointing of guru Gus Malzahn’s career. The Tigers ranked last in the West in scoring, passing and total yards – and in explosive plays (20-plus yards). Quarterback was the primary culprit, as Sean White and Jeremy Johnson combined for as many interceptions (11) as touchdown passes.
But Auburn has also seen its yards per carry dip from 6.3 in 2013 to 5.5 in 2014 to 4.4 last year. New offensive line coach Herb Hand – whose group is anchored by standout guards Braden Smith and Alex Kozan – should help fix that. So should the emergence of Robinson, a 6-foot, 219-pound powerhouse.
A former junior-college National Player of the Year who set JUCO records of 2,387 yards and 34 touchdowns in a single season, Robinson came on strong at the end of last season. He rushed for 619 yards in the Tigers’ final six games. So the biggest question is whether Malzahn can find some new magic at QB.
The dual-threat days of Nick Marshall – 4,508 yards passing, 1,866 rushing in 2013 and 2014 – came to a screeching halt last fall. Perhaps shifty JUCO transfer (and ex-Florida State QB) John Franklin III can give Auburn a real run/pass mix again this season.
6. ARKANSAS RAZORBACKS
Strength: Overall physicality
Weakness: Lack of home-run hitters
Best Player: OT Dan Skipper
Like Alabama and Ole Miss, the Hogs lost a ton from a successful 2015 offense. Unlike the Tide and Rebels, Arkansas might not reload so easily. Quarterback Brandon Allen (30 touchdown passes), running back Alex Collins (three straight 1,000-yard seasons) and tight end Hunter Henry (Mackey Award winner) are gone.
There’s a new Allen taking over at QB: Brandon’s younger brother and two-year understudy, Austin. There’s a new budding star at tight end, Jeremy Sprinkle. There’s a powerhouse in the backfield, 245-pound Kody Walker. But it seems unlikely any of those three will be better than their predecessors.
Bret Bielema’s teams always have a massive and nasty offensive line, which the 6-foot-10, 326-pound Skipper will anchor this fall. Bielema’s teams can always run the ball, and this one should again in 2016. Even so, a new QB and nondescript receiving corps seems like a recipe for regression.
7. MISSISSIPPI STATE
Strength: Proven star at receiver
Weakness: Dak Prescott is gone
Best Player: WR Fred Ross
The Bulldogs had the best, most dynamic player in school history – Prescott passed for 9,182 yards and rushed for 2,403 the last three seasons – and still finished last in the SEC West in rushing and next-to-last in sacks allowed in 2015. Now that he’s gone, it seems a certainty they’ll get worse.
Whether it’s sophomore Nick Fitzgerald or junior Damian Williams in the unenviable role of replacing Prescott, he’ll be thankful to have senior receiver Fred Ross, who set a school record with 88 catches for 1,007 yards last season. Three returning offensive line starters and the addition of Martinas Rankin, the top-ranked JUCO tackle, will also help.
But what about that ground game? Prescott was the team’s most productive runner and 5-foot-8, 165-pound senior tailback Brandon Holloway (745 career rushing yards) does not seem suited to carry the Bulldogs by himself. He’s scored one touchdown on the ground in three seasons.
Good luck against SEC defenses with that – and without Dak.
* Follow Kyle on Twitter @KyleTucker_AJC. Reach him at Kyle.Tucker@ajc.com.